Thrill of the Chaste

When he heard that I finally earned my Ph.D., my grandpa told me those three letters meant “Piled High and Deep.” He didn’t have a lot of respect for speculation and abstraction.

My field is an interdisciplinary one, called American Civilization, at the University of Texas at Austin, where I did my doctoral study.

A Ph.D. in American Civilization encourages curiosity about underlying causes of cultural phenomena and offers analytical options — historical, aesthetic, psychological, religious and economic lenses. For the last three years I’ve been curious about why Amish fiction is so popular now and what that popularity says about both Anabaptist religion (Amish and Mennonite) and the cravings of the larger culture in America.

I’m not the only person curious about this, of course. Recently I came across Saloma Miller Furlong’s review of a new book, Thrill of the Chaste, by Valerie Weaver-Zercher. I’ve invited both the reviewer and the author to engage with the readers of this blog in a series over the next few weeks. First, the excerpted review, split into two parts. Then the author’s response. I hope you’ll bring your own curiosity and questions to both.

Review of Valerie Weaver-Zercher’s Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels (Young Center Books in Anabaptist and Pietist Studies)

by Saloma Miller Furlong, author of Why I Left the Amish: A Memoir

For anyone not familiar with Amish romance novels, they are those books you see in the Christian section of bookstores or in the gift shops of Amish-style restaurants with demure women in Amish garb, some leaning on fences in a pasture, others hovering above an Amish landscape, and still others with a male next to or behind her. Almost invariably, though, there is the proverbial Amish head covering. The reason for this was articulated by one publisher when he said, “You slap a bonnet on the cover and double the sales.”

Sales numbers and bestseller lists confirm the vigor of the Amish-fiction category. The triumvirate of top Amish romance novelists—Beverly Lewis, Wanda Brunstetter, and Cindy Woodsmall—has sold a combined total of 24 million books. At least seven of Lewis’s Amish novels have sold more than 500,000 copies each, and one of those, The Shunning, has sold more than 1 million copies. Brunstetter’s fifty books, almost all of them Amish titles, have sold nearly 6 million copies. [Pg. 5]

The content of these books are formulaic: the protagonist grows up Amish, she arrives at a place in her life (usually through a crisis) in which she questions the Amish faith, and then she has a conversion experience and becomes a born-again Christian. Somewhere along the line, there is a romance, often one in which she has to choose between an Amish boyfriend and an English one. These stories invariably end happily.

Weaver-Zercher has a humorous description of her friend, Margaret’s, reaction to her research when she tried to explain what she was studying: “’So let me get this straight.” Margaret pauses, her forefinger raised above her chicken and rice. “You are writing about us, who are reading the books that other people write about the Amish.’” It is obvious that this project strikes her as a tad funny, amusing in both its degrees of separation from the Amish and the endless ripples of research it suggests.” [Pg. 231]

Saloma Furlong, a real Amish girl, who walked away from Amish life but hasn't lost her understanding of what it means to be Amish. Photo taken in 1981.

I enjoyed Weaver-Zercher’s wit throughout the book. She describes her own enjoyment of reading the books this way, “Eager to keep reading my latest Amish romance but unwilling to admit it, I would sometimes tuck the book under my sweatshirt when going to the gym or under a notebook when entering a doctor’s waiting room. … The deeper I got into this project, the more fascinated I became by the surreptitious nature of my Amish romance reading.”

I felt like she left me hanging on this question. Perhaps answering this question for herself might have given her insights into the “typical” reader’s interest in these books. She does give us several good insights as it is. One she terms hypermodernity. “The speed, anomie, and digital slavery of contemporary life have sent many readers, weary of hypermodernity, to books containing stories of a people group whom readers perceive as hypermodernity’s antithesis: the Amish.” The other term she uses is hypersexualization in which “sexual discourse, erotica, and pornography are present in almost all aspects of society.” She wrote, “The exponential growth of Amish fiction during the first decade of the twenty-first century cannot be understood apart from these “hyper” cultural developments.

I agree that hypermodernity and hypersexualization are two reasons why people are drawn to the Amish in general and to the Amish romance novels in particular. I would add another aspect, which Weaver-Zercher named but did not define or give as much attention as the other two: hyperindividualism. I feel this cannot be underestimated. In mainstream culture, we are taught that if we want something badly enough we can either achieve it or acquire it. We think if only we had enough money, then we could have anything we want.

We isolate ourselves in front of screens how many hours per day?

For however long it is, we are not interacting with other people during that time, which means we’re sacrificing community. We cannot possibly have meaningful interpersonal interactions in a community setting and be in our own world, too. People try, but they don’t succeed. Unplugging and living a simpler life is not as easy as reading an Amish romance novel.

Weaver-Zercher’s best example of this phenomenon is Suzanne Woods Fisher, host of the TogiNet Radio show Amish Wisdom, who invites her listeners to “slow down, de-clutter, find peace, and live a simpler life” each Thursday afternoon. However, Fisher’s life is anything but simple. She is the author of numerous Amish books and is contracted with her publisher, Revell, through 2016. In 2012, she had ten books on the market with eleven in the works. In one particular busy stretch, five of her books appeared in seven months. She writes them at about the rate of one every three to four months.

Besides being a radio host and author, Fisher is mother of four children and she has a little grandchild, a dad with Alzheimers and a mother who needs lots of help. Her husband is a finance executive who travels frequently. It is Fisher’s hypothesis that Amish fiction is “a response to the feeling people have of being out of control with technology and change that is coming so fast. The feeling that you have a cell phone and you are never off the hook, you are responsible to be available all the time—it’s just overwhelming. I think there’s a longing for a life in which you’re unhooked and detached, and we can’t do it; it’s too hard.”

The irony of “fast texts about a slow culture” is not lost on Weaver-Zercher. Several authors are contracted to write at least two books per year, besides Fisher writing at least three per year. So the people who want to read Amish books to fantasize about slowing down their lives are causing the already hyper capitalist publishing industry to go into overdrive. This is one of those incongruities of Amish romances.

In Part Two of this review, Saloma Miller Furlong will discuss the theological assumptions of these novels.

Now it’s your turn to analyze American Civilization. Do you crave simplicity? Does our culture in general? Do we need the Amish to remind us of what we want but are unwilling to sacrifice for? Do you have your own explanation for this amazingly popular form of fiction? Or are you like Grandpa, skeptical about such attempts to understand what we can’t know for sure?

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Shirley Showalter


  1. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on May 28, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    The popularity of this ‘fast’ writing about ‘slow’ people surely is a signpost for some thing important happening in culture…maybe it has something to do with the revolution and evolution of our religious instincts.

    Myself, I am drawn to ways that connect me with ‘slow life’ while living in an urban culture…growing, saving and sharing “Aunt Ida’s Pole Bean” seeds each year. Submitting to dawn and dusk care of chickens in my backyard. Walking when possible. Keeping lots of ‘white’ on my calendar. Finding ways to pray, with others and individually. Practicing Spiritual Direction. And so on.

    • shirleyhs on May 28, 2013 at 5:01 pm

      Thanks for breaking the ice and starting us off, Dolores. Your life sounds wonderful. It also sounds a lot like my own.

      Are you aware of the Urban Mama movement?

      I would love to connect with people described in this article.

      When I examine my childhood, I see how organic and free-range it was in almost every kind of way.

    • Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on May 28, 2013 at 10:42 pm

      I enjoyed reading about the Urban Mamas…I feel less alone!

  2. Marian Beaman on May 29, 2013 at 6:59 am

    I’ll opine on # 4 to start: The allure of a closed society, even one from which a person can be shunned or excluded is another part of the fascination of Amish fiction, I think.

    Like Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” who was locked away in a tower on a island, the life of an Amish girl seems inaccessible to many except through novels. Readers see her fanciful (!) image through the mirror of the romance novel, a mirror that probably distorts as much as it reflects authentic Amish life.

    As you say, written to the tune of a formula, to me these novels come across as not real — more like a fairy tale. Come to think of it, isn’t that part of the reason we read: to escape into another world?

    # 4: Yes, I crave simplicity. Maybe that’s why I enjoy writing about my Mennonite life so much!

    • Marian Beaman on May 29, 2013 at 7:03 am

      That was # 4 and then # 1. Please correct – Really not great with numbers!

  3. shirleyhs on May 29, 2013 at 7:49 am

    Use whatever numbers you want, Marian. I’ll join you.

    Interesting connection to other closed societies. Those outside are often both afraid (prone to conspiracy theories) and attracted (afraid we are missing what they have). Could this work with Muslim, Morman groups today also?

    Ah, simplicity. I enjoy the same reason for exploring the past and Mennonite farm life. It clearly was a slower time, but it was also very complex. The simplicity on the other side of complexity is the real prize. Not?

    How’s that for a “Dutchy” way to end?

  4. Sharon Lippincott on May 29, 2013 at 6:06 pm

    Thanks for the perspective Shirley, and thanks to your guests.

    Coming from a different perspective, I’ve read numerous Amish romances and now seek them out when I’m feeling stressed and need a mind-candy break. I set aside judgment about sloppy writing like unrealistic time lines, discrepancies about technology, and similar things. Fairy tales aren’t subject to the same editorial standards. They’re sweet. They’re fun. Believable? No. But I’ll keep reading.

    • shirleyhs on May 30, 2013 at 8:21 am

      Sharon, how good to have a reader who is also a reader of these books. For you they need no justification at all except that they are a good, fun, relaxing, read. Most of us have “beach reading” pleasures like this.

      If we had sales figures for other kinds of romance novels, perhaps the Amish fiction phenomenon would seem a little less astounding. Come back for a chance to talk to the author of the book about this. She did her homework!

  5. Richard Gilbert on May 29, 2013 at 9:44 pm

    I found this very interesting, partly because I didn’t know there was such a thing as Amish romance novels! Even though when I was with Ohio University Press/Swallow Press we published a popular line of Amish mysteries by Paul Gaus, a Wooster, Ohio, chemistry professor who was trying to do with the Amish what Tony Hillerman did with the Navaho. Our series is still going strong and is being redistributed by a big NY trade press. Amish does sell. And we had a lot of fun with Paul’s novels.

    • shirleyhs on May 30, 2013 at 8:24 am

      Thanks, Richard. And I didn’t know there was such a thing as Amish mystery novels. That’s an interesting story also.

      I think Valerie and Saloma will enjoy knowing about these books. They both know more than I do. 🙂

  6. Melanie on May 30, 2013 at 8:06 am

    I went through an Amish reading phase myself, I’ll admit it! I’m curious to know more about the readership, though. I read briefly in my mid-20’s but I think I was somewhat an exception at that age; I suspect the bulk of the reading demographic is generally older than that.

    • shirleyhs on May 30, 2013 at 10:46 am

      Melanie, no need to be embarrassed about reading these books. You are the very person the author Valerie wants to meet. I am reading Thrill of the Chaste right now myself. There is demographic info in the book, I’m sure. And I invite Valerie to cover this subject when she responds to Saloma’s review. Thanks for stopping by. You will enjoy the next two posts also, I’m sure.

    • Melanie on May 30, 2013 at 2:53 pm

      Hi Shirley, thanks for responding to me! I’ll be sure to stay tuned for the subsequent posts.

      I know why Amish romance had appeal for me personally. I was raised (and remain) a conservative Christian, and a lot of the “realistic fiction” books written for that genre are, as another commented above, candy. They were really trying to imitate mainstream “chick lit”, just with no sex. There was little originality. I wanted something that matched a large subset of my values but didn’t insult my intelligence, either. One of the nice things about Amish-themed fiction is that pandering to the mainstream isn’t an option. However, I ended up abandoning this genre, too, because the plotlines were repetitive and superficial (in what I encountered; don’t think I intend to malign the whole body of work). And part of the problem is that, generally, the Amish (or those who have left the culture) are not writing these books themselves. So the descriptions of faith and thought processes and lifestyle are lacking in everything that would have really drawn me in. I’ve read very few Christian novels that really met my standards for a “good” book, so most of what I read is secular. What can a reader do?

  7. Carol Bodensteiner on May 30, 2013 at 9:59 am

    I agree with the first comment, the Amish books fit into society’s current interest in getting back to a simpler, purer time – fueling trends like urban chickens and eating local and living green.

    I read somewhere that home improvement TV shows are popular in part because people watch and feel as though the hour was productive, that they did something, even though they never lifted a hammer. Do you suppose readers of Amish life get some vicarious sense that even for a while they’ve lived a a simpler life even if they never planted a tomato or raised a chicken?

    • shirleyhs on May 30, 2013 at 10:50 am

      Love this idea, Carol. And I have to admit, I am guilty of some of these vicarious pleasures myself. I take my coffee to the deck in the mornings and look over the vast Shenandoah Valley, enjoying the serenity of the country. Below, I know that farmers are swatting flies as they attach milking machines on udders and scoop out feed.

      My sister, a real dairy farmer, came to visit, and I told her I like this kind of farming, where the cows come up to the back fence for conversation but have their needs met elsewhere. She was less amused by that statement than I was.

  8. Laura on May 30, 2013 at 10:18 am

    I do read a few of the amish writers but I feel the young girls they put on the front of there books don’t look like any of the amish girls I have seen in the amish community we shop in here in Michigan. I know it is a marketing ploy. I really like the books by Paul Gaus and Mindy Starnes Clark. I believe I am drawn to them because of the structure to there daily lives that is created in the books. Recently I have become disenchanted with my fav author who I won’t name because that wouldn’t be fair but her books have become to far-fetched…these are people just like me dealing with life in there own way. I do admire them for sticking to the original plan even though it has been distorted by the general reading population. We romanticize canning green beans there is nothing romantic about canning dozens of quarts of green beans on a hot, muggy summer afternoon.

    • shirleyhs on May 30, 2013 at 10:58 am

      Hi, Laura, welcome to this blog and thanks for liking my FB author page. I’ve noticed how different the faces on the covers look from the real thing, also.

      And it’s not because many Amish women and girls are not pretty. They are! It’s that they don’t look like Hollywood or American beauty magazine models.

      One person looked at my book cover (a picture taken when I was twelve) and said that face has unusual presence. I blush to say that, but I think that’s what is missing in much genre fiction in general. Just slapping a bonnet on a model doesn’t give you generations of a different kind of beauty.

      As for those green beans on a muggy summer afternoon, (and the stickiness of their leaves, even when picked in the cool of the morning), there’s no way to romanticize that.

      Except when you get to taste the fresh beans cooked with new potatoes and a real ham. Served with a pungent (not creamy) cole slaw and fresh rolls and real butter. Fresh apple pie and homemade ice cream for dessert. That’s the meal I asked for on my birthday, and I can still taste it in my imagination. 🙂

  9. jdp on May 30, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    “Unplugging and living a simpler life is not as easy as reading an Amish romance novel.”

    I think that phrase is the best explanation of the American obsession with the Amish bonnet-ripper. Just like the Christian prairie romances that lined the shelves of the only bookstore in my hometown, Amish romances romance the hard work of reality. It’s easier to be a voyeur and “experience” the world of the Amish before hopping into the SUV to take the kids shopping/soccer practice/etc. and swinging by a fast food joint on the way.

    Of course, as someone noted already, we all have our guilty pleasures. I read plenty of fru-fru books about the Nightwatch and evil kings of a country where “winter is coming” when I need to ignore reality for awhile. I don’t plan on becoming a knight or anything, so who am I to look down upon a reader desiring to read about a life he/she doesn’t plan on matching?

    That said, two things bother me about this genre:

    Although I read fru-fru books, they simply temper my reading life. I always go back to literature that will sustain me, challenge me, push me to think deeply. I’m not certain the majority (there are always outliers, as I see from the comments) read beyond the safe, Christian, Amish world. I was obsessed with Mandie books and Babysitters Club books when I was a kid. My mom pulled me aside one day and told me that those books were like candy–you can enjoy them but don’t let them become the only thing you eat. I was annoyed at the time, but I grudgingly began to agree with her as I grew up.

    Another thing that bothers me is the boiler-plate plotline that these authors and publishing houses churn out. Couldn’t an author of books about a people who are “in the world but not of the world” write a romance novel with a original storyline? Is there one about an Amish man or woman deciding to join the military and his/her love interest having to make a choice? Or a story about an Amish person dealing with mental or physical disability who falls in love with a “normal” Amish person–or vice versa? Or perhaps a closeted gay Amish person? (But that may be going too far for the consumer of this genre.)

    Do any of the readers of these books remember a storyline that resembles the ones above?

  10. shirleyhs on May 30, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    Your mother was unusually wise, JDP. 🙂

    And, believe it or not, there is such a thing as gay Amish fiction. Just type in the words in Google. And there’s paranormal Amish lit, too. As Richard says above, the word Amish is amazingly fluid and can be applied to any genre, usually with positive results for sales.

    I come back to the closed community when I think about this. Amish is a blank page for writers to write on and to project their own hopes, dreams, and fantasies on to.

    We’ll see what Valerie has to say about that in the third post in this series.

  11. shirleyhs on May 30, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    This post about what customers really want is quite relevant:

    1. ease
    2. physical comfort
    3. mental stimulation
    4.identity reinforcement
    5. social acknowledgment

  12. shirleyhs on May 30, 2013 at 3:04 pm


    I recommend that you read Saloma’s book called Why I Left the Amish.Here’s my review:

    Also, here’s a list of “real-life” stories. Mine will be joining them in September. I think you will find many books on this list that are more satisfying than candy.

    As for Christian novels? I highly recommend Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and The City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell. Reviewed here:

    • Melanie on May 30, 2013 at 3:10 pm

      Hello Shirley, I’ve already read Saloma’s memoir and am eagerly awaiting the sequel- it was her blog that sent me to you! Thanks for the other recommendations; I’ve just put them on hold at the library.

      Typically, my interests are running more toward science fiction these days. I think Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” series is one of the most fantastic things I’ve ever read, and I’m hoping Hollywood doesn’t mess it up with the upcoming film. The author is actually a very outspoken Mormon, but he approaches his subject matter from a Judeo-Christian ethic that is very unique.

  13. Sherrey Meyer on May 30, 2013 at 10:08 pm

    Shirley, your post beginning this series is so timely. I’ve consistently hedged away from reading these Amish books, simply because of the covers. They didn’t strike me as presenting a realistic image of the Amish I saw and transacted business with in Lancaster, PA. Contrived would be a good word to describe them, and contrived as they are they obviously bring in the revenue.

    That being said, I have recently begun to read them as I was curious just what was offered beyond the “glamor” covers. Being a partiecipant in several publishing avenues for book bloggers, I now know, as Shirley Lippincott mentioned, these books are a great diversion from heavier reading and they are transportive just as a fair tale might be. In fact, I make such a statement when reviewing these books. Something to the effect that if you’re looking for great literature, this isn’t the book for you, or similar language.

    Like many others, our technological world makes me crave simpler times and for 2013 instead of making any resolutions, I chose the word “simplify” for my focus. I won’t say that it has been highly successful — after all as my husband enjoys saying, “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” — and life has happened for us this year.

    I’m looking forward to the rest of your series. Bring it on!

    • shirleyhs on May 31, 2013 at 8:48 am

      Thanks, Sherrey, for these comments from so many different, helpful, perspectives. How interesting this conversation is becoming! I love it when this happens, don’t you?

      I am sending you best wishes today, for your quest for simplicity. May something hazy come into focus for you, and may you be able to drop a burden you don’t need to carry. And may you join your husband in laughing at the rest.

  14. Saloma Furlong on May 30, 2013 at 11:48 pm

    Hello All,

    These are very thought-provoking comments. I’d much rather be a reader than a participant, but this discussion has led me to some new thoughts about Amish fiction. I am mulling the idea that they read like fairy tales. And then I got to thinking about what other adult novels read like fairy tales. Might someone be able to name any other adult novels that feed the imagination in a “fairy tale” way?

    JDP, I agree, your mother was a wise woman. It reminds me of how I was watching soap operas when I left the Amish. (I used to watch them while cleaning “English” people’s living rooms). Several months after the second time I left the community, I’d moved in with a family and was watching soap operas in the afternoons whenever I could… at least until my new mother figure gently suggested there were better things I could be doing with my time. To answer your question: there is one Amish romance novel that does have an original storyline, written by someone who grew up Amish. The book is called “A Separate God” written by Linda Streicker-Schmidt. Though it is a novel, it deals with some hefty issues… even more so than my memoir. You can find this book on Amazon:

    I do know about Paul Gaus’s mystery books. Here is a link to a review of the only one, “Blood of the Prodigal”, I’ve ever started to read: I’m afraid I wasn’t very kind to this book.

    Shirley, thank you for reminding me about that list of Anabaptist literature. When will yours make it up there? Your book is an important authentic Mennonite voice and I certainly look forward to its release.

    Thank you, Shirley, for facilitating this discussion. And thanks to all who are participating. It is fascinating…

    • shirleyhs on May 31, 2013 at 8:55 am

      Thanks for stopping by, Saloma. I knew you would find the variety of responses here fascinating. And I’m sure that readers will look forward to Part Two and then to Valerie’s response in the next two posts.

      I am (according to the clock on the home page, 104 days, 16 hours, 5 minutes, and 5 seconds away from launching Blush. Thanks for asking.

  15. Saloma Furlong on May 31, 2013 at 12:00 am

    A correction: The author of the Amish romance novel who grew up Amish is Lucinda Streicker-Schmidt, not Linda.


  16. Marian Beaman on May 31, 2013 at 8:30 am

    I was curious about the holdings of our public library in the area of Amish fiction.

    Lo, and behold, I found a reference to a curious book, apparently non-fiction, entitled The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment while Keeping your Clothes On by Dawn Eden, exhorting single women to sexual abstinence. Clever title with a sub-title that takes the phrase an entirely different direction.

    • shirleyhs on May 31, 2013 at 8:56 am

      I noticed the other title on Amazon when I searched for this book also. Interestingly, titles are not copyrighted. There are other books called Blush also.

  17. […] I gave her the chance to respond to Saloma Furlong’s review (see Part One and Part Two), I didn’t know she would have an essay featured in the Wall Street Journal […]

  18. Melanie on June 29, 2013 at 11:15 am

    I’m relatively new to the Amish romance genre, having just read my first one. My cousin, who is a prolific reader just mailed me 20 Amish fiction books and so I can see I will be busy for awhile.

    My fascination with the Amish has been a part of me for a long time. It began as a curiosity and later as a desire for the more simple life as many posters have noted. I enjoy reading books written by Amish and those who have visited an Amish community. It is good to see the reality of this community life as well as the more romantic side. I always have thought that there is much to learn from the Amish, about faith and family and what is more important.

    I understand wanting to read oabout a world so different from our every day, high tech, busy one. One of my favorite authors is Miss Read (Dora Saint), a British author who passed away last year. She wrote about life in small English villages – simple, down to earth stories about a slower, uncomplicated life. I would turn to those books and read them over and over again when I felt stressed and needed some “rest”. I believe that is what many receive from Amish fiction as well.

    • Saloma Furlong on June 29, 2013 at 11:43 am

      Melanie, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. Simple and elegant in the way you have described your sentiments. I now want to read the Dora Saint books myself.

      You are right, there is much we can learn from the Amish about faith and family. I would add community as well.

      Wow, 20 books is a lot. Happy reading!

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